Plagues, Viruses, and the Internet

One of my ongoing research interests is the way in which metaphors shape the way we think about the interwebs.  For example, we often describe technological changes as revolutions, breakthroughs, or cutting edge. These kinds of metaphors may mask the ways in which the interwebs are not revolutionary and recapitulate existing inequalities.

Nevertheless, one of my favorite metaphors is the virus/plague/meme metaphor. In 16th Century England, authors often compared the spread of unregulated books to the spread of disease. Similarly, we describe unwanted programs as viruses that infect our machines. This metaphor makes sense to us because plagues and viruses spread without our control.

Like viruses, images, news stories, and memes proliferate on the internet without our control. For example, historian Monica Green from Arizona State Leprosy_victims_taught_by_bishopUniversity recently found that a Medieval illustration is often used online to describe the Black Death.  However, the image actually depicts clerks with leprosy being taught by a Bishop.Green and her colleagues traced the error back to a catalog mistake at the British Library: “While art historians have long known what this image portrays, it was mislabeled as a plague image when the British Library’s digitization process removed it from its original textual context” (Jones). In other words, the error is replicated online over and over because one librarian made a simple mistake.

Errors are not new to publishing.  After all, just looking at the Hamlet Quarto Project shows you how easily errors, changes, and typos can appear in printing. Or, in the infamous Wicked Bible (1631), the printers forgot a small word and the Eighth Commandment suddenly read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Mistakes happen.  However, digital publishing can make these errors widespread. What’s more, when an image or error is uploaded to Wikipedia, the mistake is perceived as truth.

At the same time, the affordances of digital media allow us to fix these errors.  A mislabeled image in Wikipedia can be easily removed or relabeled by anyone with an internet connection and the knowledge. Conversely, an error may circulate for years because the Tudor kings and queens were right – information is like a virus.


I’m currently rereading Jürgen Habermas‘s (1991) The Structural Transformation of the Public Space and thought about writing a post about that.  However, I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle German philosophy in this space … yet.

Instead, I want to talk about photocopiers.  This boingboing article by Mark Frauenfelder highlights how Xerox did not anticipate the power of the first Xerox photocopier.  For example, Frauenfelder points out that, “before the [Xerox] 914 machine, Americans made 20 million copies a year, but by 1966 Xerox had boosted the total to 14 billion.” That’s million versus billion folks! The photocopier radically altered how people shared materials.

Before the photocopier, scores of secretaries typed and retyped secretary pooldocuments. Sometimes, they could use carbon paper, but mostly, they rekeyed every letter. Every contract.  Every business letter. Every promotion form. Every document. Typed and retyped by women. They could use a mimeograph machine, but the were messy, sometimes more difficult to set up, and usually only used for many copies at a time.

However, the photocopier changed all that. Suddenly, one machine could quickly, easily, and neatly make a copy. Although, watching the scene in the movie 9 to 5 in which Jane Fonda’s character fights with the copy machine suggests that the machines were pretty complex. Could “any moron” operate that copier?

This change seems analogues to the invention of the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg probably had no idea how important his press would be to the dissemination of Martin Luther’s treatises and the Protestant Reformation. In fact, even Luther claimed he did not anticipate such a widespread reaction. In a letter to one of his friends, Luther writes about his Ninety-Five Theses that “my purpose was not to publish them, but first to consult a few of my neighbors about them, that thus I might either destroy them if condemned or edit them with the approbation of others. But now they are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation, I feel anxious about what they may bring forth.”

The technologies allowed for relatively fast dispersal of information. Luther’s quote suggests that the speed of copying prevented him from retracting or revising his Theses. The technology decreased the time between composition and publication – the time in which contemplation. revision, and redaction may occur. The Church couldn’t stop the spread.

Similarly, the leaders at Xerox feared their new machine would make it easier to spread dumb ideas: “’Have we really made a contribution by making it easier to reproduce junk and nonsense?’ as Sol Linowitz, CEO of Xerox International, fretted in Life magazine.”  To answer Linowtiz’s question, “Yes.”

Computers Aren’t People

Like this article in The Onion, we tend to anthropomorphize technology. Like the woman in the article, I talk about how my computer hates me or about how my phone seems to know exactly when to run out of battery power. We give machines human emotions and motives. But for how complex these machines are, they aren’t people. Even the Terminator, was incapable of really understanding feelings.

It seems dangerous to give technology agency. Talking about how the computer has changed with world ignores the fact that human beings designed, built, and marketed that computer. Moreover, it hides the marketing mechanisms behind these technologies. candycrushEvery day we’re told to buy the latest gadget, the newest app, or more lives in Candy Crush. In fact, in an article in The Guardian, psychologist Steve Sharman points out that games like Candy Crush are designed to be addictive:  “The illusion of control is a crucial element in the maintenance of gambling addiction … [as it] instills a feeling of skill or control,” he says. “There are a number of in-game features [such as the boosters in Candy Crush] that allow players to believe they are affecting the outcome of the game, and in some cases they are, but those instances are rare.” In other words, Candy Crush is addictive because people made it that way.

The interactivity of these new technologies may explain why we map human emotions onto them.  Did medieval monks blame their quills when they split and quit working correctly?  Did Gutenberg blame his press for being moody if a lever broke?  But my laptop seems to respond to my needs. Now that websites track our webtraffic and suggest things we would like, the humanness of my laptop is greater than ever. And yet, these suggestions come with strings – lack of privacy, access to social networks, and as always, a call for more spending.